ROGER SCOTT. “WHITHER POLITICAL SCIENCE? – An International Perspective”

Aug 7, 2018

Fundamental questions are starting to be asked by governments everywhere about the value-for-money of tertiary education in general and about various components of the humanities and social sciences in particular. A world congress of political scientists meeting in Brisbane confronted this topic from a number of different perspectives and noted growing expectations that political scientist academics should be focussing their efforts on making an impact on the policy process.

The 25th World Congress of Political Science was organised by the International Political Studies Association (IPSA) and the Australian Political Studies Association (AuPSA). As he noted last week, Mark Beeson was there and so was I. Despite our previous Brisbane connection, sadly but not unexpectedly our paths never crossed in four days. To put it mildly, it was a big show – nearly a hundred different themes, eight sessions a day, with up to 38 simultaneous meetings in the same time slot, dealing with over 1200 papers published on the congress website and many sessions where authors talked about future papers and books. 

There was a dazzling array of international and local luminaries, with a strong focus on the multiple problem of political and social borders and on the rise of populist-authoritarian parties and regimes. Australian authors focussed on issues of public policy, party and electoral reform and particularly a range of issues relating to indigenous politics and policies. All 1200+ papers can be viewed on the conference web-site:

Several sessions I attended offered a general analysis that the discipline of Political Science within the universities and within the wider community is in trouble. Australia may be in the same place. Discussions I attended identified problems in the discipline as a sub-set of the problems that universities as a whole face in persuading their governments that taxpayers, students and employers are getting value for money out of their combined investments. Perhaps Political Scientists are becoming too self-centred for their own good, chasing their preferred research and teaching interests without seeking to shape these interests to have an impact on the wider society. 

This concern has clearly been worrying IPSA for some years and one of the most stimulating sessions I attended was a round table gathering of former IPSA executives chaired by Marian Sawer, an Australian representative of that fraternity/sorority. To plagiarise from the session abstract, the starting point was a forthcoming book by Rainer Eisfeld, “Empowering Citizens: Political Science for the 21st Century. The book will set out eight major issues of democratic erosion and argues that correspondingly the discipline needed to evolve a culture of public engagement to confront these issues. Such engagement within universities included civics education in the curriculum, engaging critically with current forms of research governance, improving communications skills beyond academe, confronting “large” questions in academic education and revamping the discipline’s incentive structure.

This was supported by most of the panel but a strong push-back came from Professor Matthew Flinders from Sheffield University, who emphasised the deleterious effect of the measurement regime instituted in Britain. The insertion of a new criterion of “impact” – similar to the changing approach of Australian tertiary funding authorities – had skewed the behaviour of staff appointments boards and the topic choices of research bodies and of individual staff members. He feared that the undesirable effects of the current two-class division between research academic and teaching-only tenured appointments would be magnified if a third class of “impact” academics emerged. He suggested that there were already “impact professors” who were sought after by university managers as a way to boost the financial benefits to be derived from their institution’s impact scores. Given my own orientation and experience, I found nothing to deplore in this development, unless star performers became commodities to be traded in the same way that researchers often are in Britain and elsewhere. 

Another session was entitled “Political Science and Politics: Comparative Perspectives on Disciplinary Autonomy”. Clyde Barrow, an American professor currently at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, offered an “auto-ethnographic” account in a presentation entitled “the entrepreneurial intellectual in the corporate university”. This was based on his book with the same title published by Palgrave

He explains in the preface that his book is simultaneously a critique of the corporate university and the elaboration of its antithesis—the entrepreneurial intellectual. Much of the text consists of a personal narrative of his experiences directing an entrepreneurial research centre at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth from 1993 to 2014. He concludes that the bureaucratic reality of the corporate university is structurally antagonistic to the activities of entrepreneurial intellectuals, such as policy-oriented or engaged political scientists.

He has a particular concern that research and development activities might be diverted by university management into becoming nothing more than public subsidies to private business – corporate welfare – in the form of workforce development, technology transfer and other subsidies that transfer value produced by faculty and students to private corporations. 

Drawing on radical social theorists like Proudhon and Marcuse, he counsels that “American professors must relinquish the ideal of the ivory tower and accept the reality that they work in corporate and state-capitalist enterprises. By continuing to claim that the university is somehow special or unique – indeed even sacred – rather than just another business, professors cut themselves off from the recognition that their demands as faculty are the same demands being made by other workers for workplace democracy, profit-sharing, and co-operative or worker ownership….Professors have little room left to manoeuvre, because corporatisation has already transformed higher-education into one-dimensional institutions.”

Another session viewed the discipline drawing on a similar vein of radical literature, with several papers from outside the Anglophone sphere. Its pessimistic tone was captured in the title of the series of panels: “Critical Theory in Political Science: An Uninhabitable Home?”

Ivan Manokha argued that “the current dominant orthodoxy in social sciences in general and in Political Science in particular is heavily oriented to a problem-solving, policy-oriented research underpinned by positivist methodology and increasing use of quantitative methods as criteria for knowledge-validation and a mark of scientificity. Coupled with the introduction of private management techniques in universities which, among other things, has resulted in constant quantitative evaluation of scholarly work (the number of publications in top-ranked peer-review journals, the impact factor etc), pursuing a research grounded in critical theory and an academic career as a critical scholar is becoming more and more difficult.”

Amparo Menedez-Carrion suggested that “the task of re-thinking the political realm has been undertaken mostly by ‘outsiders’ of a discipline whose boundaries have been zealously guarded by its mainstream custodians…the paper is premised on the notion that de-stabilising the boundaries of Political Science from within constitutes an important endeavour for the health of the discipline.”

Both authors relate their recommendations for change back to classical Athens – invoking “academic parresia“ (Plato’s injunction about the moral obligation to speak truth to power, whatever the personal cost) and reclaiming the idea of the ‘polis’ as a basis for civic engagement to replace widespread voter apathy. 

I was frequently the only Australian in the audience for some of these sessions, understandable given the cornucopia of alternatives with topics closer to home. But I found in all of them ideas which were near the knuckle for anyone concerned about politics teaching within Australian universities. It remains now for me to explore the relevance of these ideas to the more parochial context of the AuSPA contributions which were threaded through the congress.

Roger Scott, Centre for Policy Futures, University of Queensland.

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